Diplomatic language may be the order of the day as massed ranks of lawyers and committee types put the finishing touches to a complex agreement that will shape the future of cross-border rugby in Europe. But after two years of bruising negotiations that stretched some relationships to breaking point and snapped others in two, there is still plenty of scope for a sharp word. Edward Griffiths, the chief executive of Saracens, proved as much yesterday when he aired some strong opinions on the turf war over the Heineken Cup.
Griffiths took a swipe at the rugby establishment when, speaking to the BBC, he accused some of those involved in the dispute of having “big egos trapped within small minds”, adding that “once the egos got out of the way, it was fairly easy to find a solution”.
He also pointed his finger at the Welsh Rugby Union, whose leading figures fought hard to block determined moves by England’s top-flight teams and their own professional regions to revolutionise the club game in the northern hemisphere.
“The Welsh regions [Cardiff Blues, Newport-Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets] have been clear-minded through the process and deserve a lot of credit for sticking to their guns,” he said. “I think some of the WRU’s behaviour has been erratic and unpredictable. Maybe they’ve come round to see a little sense.”
Supporters keen for confirmation that an elite tournament involving teams from all the leading nations will be organised for next season have been kept waiting for several days – not because the major issues surrounding the abolition of the popular Heineken Cup in favour of a restructured 20-team competition are still being thrashed out, but because the Italians remain unclear of their financial position in the brave new world. A formal announcement is imminent, but timing is sensitive: next week happens to be European quarter-final week.
Griffiths, whose club face a supremely difficult tie with Ulster in Belfast in eight days’ time, said he was confident the new arrangements would win the backing of the paying public across the union landscape.
“At the end of the day, this isn’t good news for just the English clubs, or the French clubs, or the Welsh regions,” he said. “It’s good news for European rugby. We have a competition with a fairer format and a fairer financial distribution: in fact, there’s no reason why the format won’t generate more money for everyone. It’s our responsibility as administrators to put the best possible competition on the table for the coaches and players, and for the supporters to watch.”
One of the principal negotiators for the English clubs, the Bath owner and chairman Bruce Craig, will have other things on his mind tonight when Sale visit the Recreation Ground for a highly significant Premiership game. The West Countrymen lie third in the table and victory would push them very close to a semi-final spot, but the northerners will start the game only seven points adrift and will not be short of motivation.
“This time last year, we were scrapping for our lives,” said the Sale rugby director, Steve Diamond. “Now, we might be suffering from a little bit of altitude sickness. We have Bath to come, as well as Harlequins, Exeter and Leicester, who are all big sides. If we don’t play with the energy we’ve shown of late then we won’t win those games. If we do, we may well win them.”
Diamond has made one change to the side which turned over Northampton, the title favourites, last weekend, with the Russian lock Andrei Ostrikov replacing Jonathan Mills in the engine room.
Bath include Guy Mercer at open-side flanker, having lost the outstanding Springbok loose forward Francois Louw to injury.